Many big issues are at their heart debates between optimists and pessimists – with some pretentious self-declared realists thrown into the mix. This is also true about climate change.
Will we develop carbon-neutral technologies? Or can we capture the carbon dioxide and store it? Where? How will we finance that? Can we move cities threatened by rising sea levels and increased storms? Can wind and solar energy produce enough energy? Won’t we run out of oil and coal anyway? Wouldn’t we save a lot of emissions if we worked fewer days per week?
I actually think those questions are less relevant than they seem. The future of our planet will not depend on technology, it will depend on human behavior.
Will we come to our senses and consume and produce less? Will we help those displaced by floods and droughts? Will we become more defensive and aggressive at the same time? Or will be become more compassionate and cooperative? Will the rich (basically anyone reading this blog) care for the poor or retire to some refuge?
I have been wondering about this in recent years, as the planet is heating up as fast as never before. Admittedly, I have become ever more skeptical as the population continues to increase and people continue to fly and drive and eat steaks. There are reasons for optimism in between, but they are quickly drowned out by the sounds of a billion exhaust pipes.
And then I came across a book, a wonderful book about a terrible event. Now, I think I know how it will end. I learned it from Svetlana Alexievich’s account of the Chernobyl disaster. Everything about that event is shocking, but nothing more so than the carefree attitude and willful ignorance of people, which, I am afraid, is not limited to those living around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Everything went its normal course: plowing, sowing, harvesting. Something unimaginable had happened, but people lived the way they had always lived.
This was not because people didn’t know about radioactivity. Rather, the problem was so enormous that one had to ignore it to survive mentally. Even if it meant surviving for only a few short years.
That year, our neighbors got a new floor, made of local wood. It was measured, and the nuclear radiation was a hundred times above the limit. Nobody ever tore the flooring out, they are still living with it, thinking: It’s going to be alright somehow, things always work out.
Some will now object that this took place in the Soviet Union and that a market economy provides totally different incentives for people to behave smarter. But no! It was exactly materialistic motivation which let people forget the threat to their health and their families. Someone from the Chernobyl Museum explains:
There was a moment when there was the threat of a thermonuclear explosion, and the heavy water had to be released from the reactor, or it would have crashed into it. Heavy water is a direct component of the nuclear fuel. Can you imagine that? The task was: Who will dive into the heavy water and open the slider of the release valve? Promises were made: a car, an apartment, a dacha and financial security for the family until life’s end. Volunteers were sought. And they volunteered! The boys were diving, diving several times, they opened the slider, and the squad got 7000 rubles for it. …
The men are all dead by now.
Ok, you may dismiss this as juvenile heroics. But even long after the catastrophe, people were guided by money:
The soil had different levels of contamination, on the same collective farm there were “clean” and “dirty” fields. Those working on the “dirty” fields received more money, and everyone wanted to go there. Nobody wanted to work on the “clean” ones anymore.
When the evacuation of a village was announced a week in advance, people “used” the time to bale hay, to cut grass and to harvest vegetables.
And then someone says we shouldn’t eat the cucumbers and tomatoes. What is that supposed to mean? They taste like always. And people eat them, and the stomach doesn’t hurt.
It was not for the absence of warning voices. A teacher tells of an evening among parents, where a doctor asks the other parents to send their children to relatives. Far away from Chernobyl.
I believe everyone there felt the same: She was causing needless anxiety. …
Oh, how we hated her back then! She had ruined our evening.
And this is how people will continue to behave. They will continue to buy and to produce, to work and to reproduce. They will close the eyes to anything complicated and seek salvation in shallow materialism. Even the last human being will still be proud about all the property he will have snatched up.
That’s how trite the end will be.
Because that’s how stupid we are.
And that, to return to the opening question, is my optimistic scenario.
- Get Chernobyl Prayer on Amazon. Or actually any of Alexievich’s books, they are fantastic books about the Soviet Union and about human nature.
- More about climate change.
- Zur deutschen Fassung dieses Artikels.
Willful stupidity or ignorance is a very frightening and frustrating trait. I became a hermit because of my health. When my health improved enough to venture out into the world again, I was quickly running back to my house. People don’t want to listen, they don’t want to know.
Humans deserve to be wiped out by Mother Nature. She has been patient and forgiving, but enough is enough!
That’s exactly what I mean when I mention my “optimism”. The world will do just fine without humans.
You’re probably right – people will try to pretend that everything is well and they don’t have to make any uncomfortable changes.
However, unlike that with radiation that is completely invisible, and may not show any visible impact for year, if at all, it would be much harder for at least some people to pretend everything is okay, when they find their city more and more flooded, and their climate too hot and dry to grow the crops they used to grow.
That’s certainly a point, and several of the people interviewed for the book also mention that fact of the danger being invisible. On the other hand, they saw the fire and were watching it from their balconies.
And most people who lived there were associated with the nuclear power plant, otherwise they wouldn’t have moved to Pripyat. I met a lady who had lived there and was 6 years old when the explosion happened. She told me that her part of town was scheduled to be evacuated in the evening, so people should of course have closed the windows and stayed inside. But because it was a sunny and warm day, they were all using the “day off” to play outside and to stand in front of the houses, chatting with neighbors.
But visibility is surely a factor. That’s why I notice that here, in Germany, where we have mostly moderate climate, many people don’t notice anything (or only positive aspects of milder winters). It’s usually the farmers who are most alarmed because they notice the change most drastically.
And even for me, who has been reading a lot about the effects of global warming, it was still quite memorable when I climbed a mountain that had been covered by a glacier until 15 years ago and was now completely barren: https://andreasmoser.blog/2017/02/14/climate-change-is-real-my-tedx-video/
An interesting analysis. Thanks for this. You remind of a possible scenario on which I sometimes ponder. How would we behave if we discovered a meteorite that would destroy us within a year? Would we still live our lives as per normal? Would people disbelieve the scientists? Would we stop going to work and most services go haywire? Would we descend into anarchy? It would be a nightmare. Long term, however, as was pointed out above, life would regenerate itself, hopefully evolving in a less self destructive direction.
That’s a very interesting thought experiment indeed, especially as the destruction would be complete.
Based on what I have learned about humanity, I think that many people would still go to the office, sign a mortgage, have children and save for retirement.
Even when we look at countries ravaged by war, in history and in present, most people carry on with their regular lives (albeit under more challenging circumstances). In Germany during World War II, for example, the birth rate in some years was twice as high as today, although millions of men were absent. And I am sure people kept following their favorite shows on Nazi-Netflix, or however it was called.
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People are missing the point about climate change. According to the IPCC the minimum possible effect of a doubling of CO2 is a greater than 1 degree celcius rise in global temperature, though it might be 5 degrees. A 1 degree rise in sea temps. will release 2% of the CO2 dissolved in the sea. There’s 50 times the CO2 in sea compared to air so this 2% will double atmospheric CO2 again. Can you see? If CO2 was a greenhouse gas the rise in temp. could only ever be exponential! Either we’re all doomed or GW hypothesis is a fraud. I prefered the Russian nuclear threat as a fear factor. Damn Gorbachev and Reagan.
We are doomed and Russia is indeed a big threat, in the form of all the methane and other gases that will be released once the permafrost zones will become unfrozen.
I need to read this. Interesting, I was just there!
In that case, I think the book will resonate with you even more! But it’s also a very moving book that I would recommend to anyone else, even if they have no particular interest in Chernobyl. It opens with a love story that made me cry on the metro, as I was reading it.
Maybe it touched me more because I was living in Kiev at the time.
I actually decided not to go to Chernobyl, for several reasons. One reason was that I thought a tourist tour couldn’t offer any more insight than reading these stories or speaking to survivors in Kiev. I met one lady who had been evacuated from Pripyat when she was 6 years old. She has never been back and that confirmed my hunch to think of these tours as somewhat ghoulish.
But I did notice that you went for a serious journalistic project, and not some Instagraph shots.
Let me link to your article: https://artstyleflow.com/2018/11/13/the-generations-of-chernobyl/ because it really offers a lot of insight into the current situation of Chernobyl,
as well as to your documentary:
Cool! Thanks for the reply and share. I’ll do the same. I’ll start following you.